St. Mary's elected leaders said they would look into how the county regulates rental property after tenants complained about poor conditions at a trailer park in Park Hall.
The county, like Charles County and Calvert County, does not require licensing or periodic inspections of rental housing.
Instead, officials react to problems reported by tenants. Critics say the system allows substandard housing to remain on the market, in part because tenants may fear that complaints will prompt landlords to ask a court to evict them.
Kathie Smith, 21, and other tenants of the Garrett Park trailer park south of Leonardtown said they lived without heat and with hazardous electrical wires, rotting floors and other poor conditions.
Several weeks after Smith began visiting and telephoning officials, the approximately 30 trailers at Garrett Park remained unvisited by county officials responsible for enforcing housing statutes.
Officials of the St. Mary's County Health Department inspected the trailer park on Dec. 2 after being called by Smith, and ordered repairs to a defective septic system that let sewage seep to the surface.
But the dwellings themselves remained uninspected through Friday--a status that perplexed Board of Commissioners President Julie B. Randall (D-At Large).
"It's our job, and we get paid to be responsive" to citizen concerns, Randall said in an interview. "I will be looking into it."
Smith, her husband, Jeffrey Smith, 25, and their two small children were evicted from Garrett Park. They left Dec. 5 after management won a court judgment that they had failed to pay rent.
The Smiths said they owed no money because they improved their rented trailer in place of paying the $500 monthly rent. Resident agent Gerald Skalby said the couple failed to pay rent after the work-for-rent arrangement had concluded.
In the days and weeks before she received an eviction notice, Kathie Smith sought official help to rectify shortcomings at Garrett Park. She left telephone messages for county commissioners and went to the office of Adam Knight, the county's code coordinator whose job is to enforce housing regulations.
Knight said Smith came to his office in mid-November and he asked her to write a letter to landlord Wayne C. Cook, and to provide a copy to county officials.
Without such a letter, Knight said, he can take no action.
"I have to have it in writing," Knight said.
He said the requirement is meant to ensure landlords know what complaints are being made, and have a chance to fix any defects.
"It would be presumptuous of me to show up at [a landlord's] door with these violations when he hasn't had a chance to fix them," Knight said. "I just can't arbitrarily go down there and start writing violations if he doesn't know about them."
Smith never provided him with a letter, even though he urged her to do so in a telephone conversation Dec. 1, Knight said.
He said people often do not follow up after being told the procedure. In such cases, Knight said, "I assume she either talked to the landlord and worked it out, or moved."
Cook could not be reached for comment.
Maryland law sets minimum standards, such as functioning heat and clean water, and leaves enforcement to the localities.
Knight said that so far this year, St. Mary's officials had sent six letters to landlords, conducted one inspection and taken one enforcement action to District Court. He had no details on the enforcement action.
According to the U.S. census figures, St. Mary's County had more than 7,600 rental housing units in 1990, including 1,286 rented trailers.
No other Maryland county had as many as 600 rented trailers. Charles County had 237 rented trailers and Calvert County had 173, according to census data.